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Hinges of History

by Arthur Herman

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World, by James Lacey and Williamson Murray (Bantam, 496 pp., $30)

Heraclitus called war “the father of all things”; James Lacey and Williamson Murray see war as the father of civilization and, more  specifically, of major global shifts of power.

That’s a less obvious approach to the study of war than it first seems, especially in the bold way the authors go about it. Some battles and campaigns in their Top 20 seem all too familiar: Marathon, the Spanish Armada, D-Day, and the Battle of Britain. Others do not: Yarmuk (the Arab defeat in 636 of the Byzantine Empire, a battle that meant Islam was here to stay), Breitenfeld (the 1631 clash between Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus and the armies of the imperial Habsburgs that set the stage for the emergence of professional national armies), and the last battle on their list, Operation Peach, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some might quibble about their idiosyncratic choices. Why Marathon instead of Salamis, for instance, and why 1066, the Norman invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings, instead of 732, when the Battle of Poitiers halted the remorseless Arab advance into Western Europe (until recently, that is)?

On that point, some might find Lacey and Murray’s selection rather Eurocentric, and even Anglocentric. Seven of the 20 battles they pick, including Hastings, involve English or British fighting forces, while no fewer than ten touch on wars involving Britain and America, from Hastings and Saratoga to Vicksburg and Operation Peach; and American president Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles hover heavily in the wings of the fight for Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that ended France’s empire in Indo-China and opened the way for American intervention in Vietnam (of which none of the battles made the Top 20).

Overall, though, the reader has to concede the authors their choice of battles and, more important, their overall thesis, that “the impact of military factors has changed the course of history not only in the short term, but in the long term as well.”

From that point of view, some selections seem self-evident. It’s hard to challenge the conclusion that the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 b.c. rallied the other city-states and kept Athenian democracy and Greek civilization alive for another generation — in turn laying the foundations for the emergence of a distinct Western culture. And who can doubt that the Roman victory over Hannibal at Zama in 202 b.c. made Rome mistress of the Mediterranean and empress of the world — just as Rome’s defeat at the hands of the Goths at Adrianople in 378 a.d. spelled that empire’s end?

But with the battle of Teutoburger Wald in 9 a.d., when Caesar Augustus’s finest legions were crushed by barbarian chieftain Hermann (no relation as far as I know), we start to see Lacey and Murray flexing their historical muscles. Teutoburger wasn’t just a major setback for Augustus’s hope of extending Roman rule beyond the Rhine, they argue; it also “marked an end to the opportunity to establish a united Europe”: “From that point on, Germany would stand separate and apart from the rest of non-Slavic” Europe. It has been a source of contention ever since.

Similarly, while the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 decisively halted Hitler’s conquest of Western Europe and gave Franklin Roosevelt time to rally America on the side of Britain against the Axis — a pretty significant legacy — it also, the authors point out, “ensured that the British Isles provided the base on which the great Anglo-American partnership not only defeated Nazi Germany but also developed into the great alliance that would hold Western Europe against the Soviet tyranny until Communism collapsed.”

The reader soon gets the general idea. The real fun of Moment of Battle is guessing how far the authors can stretch a battle or campaign’s long-term impact on world events — and where historical insight stops and conceptual overreach takes over.

For example, it’s fair to argue that the American victory at Midway in 1942 took the pressure off President Roosevelt to focus resources on the war against Japan, opening the possibility for American troops’ going on the offensive in Europe, first in Operation Torch and then in Italy and D-Day, which led to V-E Day as well as V-J Day. All the same, how does one assess the claim that Midway so far advanced Americans’ ability to win the war in the Pacific on their own that they could “exclude the Soviets from participating in the occupation of Japan” and from dividing the country as Russia did Germany after 1945? One could just as well argue that the really decisive moment was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which ended the war before Russia’s help was needed to launch a full-scale invasion of Japan — Midway or no Midway.

In the end, what’s missing is a specific, compelling theme or argument, like that in Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, which I reviewed in these pages (“The Western Edge,” October 15, 2001). And, at times, the authors’ boldness seems to desert them completely. This is most evident in the last chapter — which might actually be the best chapter of the book — on the American invasion of Iraq. After a strong and suspenseful account of the drive to Baghdad in 2003, Lacey and Murray assert that “the war has set the world on a new and radically altered course” — but then they don’t say what it is. Instead, the chapter ends abruptly, with no conclusion, as does the book. The reader is left hanging, and not just over the final verdict on Iraq.

This is unfortunate, because every indication is that military history, after a decades-long vogue triggered by John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), is on the way out. Like college students in the Sixties, Americans want to lay down their sword and shield and not study war no more. They think they got more than their fill with Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, their agony may be just beginning. It would be helpful, even vital, to have a book explain how wars, including the ones we are fighting today, have historical consequences far beyond their immediate destruction and death toll. Lacey and Murray point the way — but they don’t close the deal.

– Mr. Herman’s most recent book, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, is about to appear in paperback.

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